Roy likes to think that he's pretty good at keeping secrets. He and his best friend Beatrice have shouldered the responsibility of her step-brother's secret for the past year, and doing so has become quite a bit more complicated since his appearance at the groundbreaking ceremony for the Mother Paula's Pancake House that was never built. Several local papers and one national news station have interviewed Roy and Beatrice about their successful efforts to stop construction, and they've fielded questions about Beatrice's brother, who has gone back into hiding.
"Wasn't there a third kid?"
They tell everyone who asks that this kid just stepped out of the crowd, moved by Roy's speech, and disappeared afterward. No one seems terribly interested in the third kid anyway, as long as they've got two others to quote in their articles about the owl sanctuary. The only person Roy and Beatrice really worry about is Beatrice's step-mother, who has thankfully ignored most of the news about the events at the groundbreaking ceremony. Still, just to be cautious, Beatrice's brother has moved out of his old shelter in the shipyard, and has, according to Beatrice, found a safer place to hide from the threat of being returned to boarding school, or worse.
"Why can't you just tell me?" Roy asks Beatrice as he's walking home with her after school. It's around six o'clock in the evening, and Roy has spent the past hour working on homework while Beatrice ran laps and practiced soccer drills. She's bound and determined to make their high school's varsity soccer team, though there are rumors that they have an unspoken policy to not allow any freshman on the team, no matter how good they are.
"Because," Beatrice groans. Roy knows she's fed up with his begging and that he should probably stop, but when it comes to her step-brother, he never knows when to quit. Obsessive persistence is the only reason he ever became friends with the boy known as Mullet Fingers.
"Because, Roy, we both know that as soon as I tell you where he's staying you'll start going there every day. Like before."
"So?" Heat spreads across Roy's cheeks, and he wonders how good he really is at keeping secrets. The wearied look Beatrice gives him makes him wonder if she's figured his out.
"So it puts him in danger of being found! What if your parents wonder what you're up to and follow you there? They won't mean him any harm, but you know they'll tell someone that there's a fifteen-year-old kid living by himself."
"He's fifteen?" Roy asks in amazement. He's not sure why he always assumed Beatrice's brother was the same age as the two of them. He and Mullet Fingers talk about a lot of things, but nothing so basic as their ages. Roy doesn't even know his real name.
"Look," Beatrice says. "Just drop it. It's too risky."
"But you go to see him!"
"Right! When I need to, I bring him supplies. I'm careful."
"I'd be careful!" Roy says, beginning to get angry. It's not as if he wants Beatrice's brother to be found, or doesn't care. He'd be willing to bet that he'd be far more devastated than Beatrice if that happened.
"You'd get -" Beatrice shakes her head. "You would end up doing something stupid, Roy, you know you would, not on purpose, but you just wouldn't think clearly."
"So I'm an idiot now?" Roy asks, his face burning hotter because he knows that's not what she means.
"You're an expert in visiting him and I'd just screw it up?"
"Roy, stop! You know it's different for you."
He doesn't want to her to see his face, bright red now, his eyes watering at the corners because he's realized she does know his secret, has seen right through him. He walks off cursing under his breath, ignoring her efforts to call him back. By the time he gets to his house the sun has begun to sink, coloring the sky pale pink that fades to orange. He wipes his eyes and checks the front porch, hoping to see one of his dirty old sneakers filled with water, a bug-eyed mullet swimming obliviously inside it. Whenever this happens, he knows to take the fish and the sneaker down to the water, and that by the time he's dumped the mullet back into the ocean, Beatrice's brother will have appeared behind him as if by magic, smiling big and putting a finger over his mouth to remind Roy not to shout his stupid nickname in relief. Every time Roy sees him, his fears that the barefoot boy will disappear forever evaporate like sugar on his tongue, and he always needs the reminder to keep quiet.
There is no shoe waiting, and Roy falls to a seat on one of the wicker porch chairs, puts his head in his hands. Beatrice is right, which is infuriating. If she told Roy where her brother is right now, he would spin in his tracks and get there as quickly as possible. From the moment he first saw him, running barefoot alongside the school bus, he's had a rope in his chest that pulls him always toward that boy. It only took a few weeks for him to figure out why, but at some point, probably when Roy skipped school to go out with him in a little boat and take a tour of the land that Roy has come to love because Mullet Fingers loves it, Roy started working things out. The barefoot boy's shoulders turned red in the sun, and Roy had never before wanted to kiss someone's sunburn, had never before wanted to kiss anyone.
He doesn't see Mullet Fingers for almost a week, and avoids Beatrice at school. He hasn't made many other friends since high school started, and the days feel ridiculously long, his heart pumping harder with every hour that brings him closer to the time when he'll reach the front porch of his house and have a few hopeful seconds before the crushing disappointment of seeing the empty glass table where Mullet Fingers usually leaves the shoe. His mother asks him what's wrong at dinner on Friday night, and when he mumbles "nothing," he catches his parents sharing a look of concern. He knows they're both waiting for him to fall in love with Beatrice any day now, and he wishes sometimes that he could.
On Saturday morning he sleeps until noon, and drags himself out of bed with a moan when his stomach whines loud enough to wake him up. He eats two Pop Tarts over the kitchen sink, not really looking forward to the day ahead. Normally he would go into town with Beatrice, maybe see a movie or harass some irresponsible hotel developers, but lately Beatrice has been spending more time with the other soccer team hopefuls, obsessing over the upcoming tryouts and their strategies for making varsity. Roy loves watching her games, but gets quickly bored with technical soccer talk, and Beatrice has told him that he makes the other girls "nervous." Her brother smirked when Roy told him this, in a huff because he felt like his best friend was trying to get rid of him.
"They think you're cute," Mullet Fingers explained.
"What?" Roy was too panicked by the sound of the word to take this as a compliment at the time.
"The other girls. You make them nervous because they think you're cute. That's what she meant."
Mullet Fingers often has to parse things like this out for Roy. He once told Roy he had a theory that Dana Matherson, the bully who tortured him in middle school, was really in love with him. Roy had shoved him for the comment, horrified at the thought.
"That was what Beatrice, thought, too," Mullet Fingers told him, laughing. "That's why she was always saving you."
Roy was humiliated by this, though also glad that it gave him a chance to tackle his friend in an attempt to get him to shut up about it. Mullet Fingers is pretty laid back and even-keeled, and doesn't often give Roy the chance to wrestle him to the ground. When he does, he always laughs, and Roy guiltily loves the way his ribs shake under his hands.
After breakfast, Roy glumly considers taking a shower or watching TV, but doesn't really want to do either. He gets dressed and goes out to check the front porch just for the hell of it, not really expecting to see anything there.
There is no shoe on the table, but in the spot where it usually rests there is a small puddle of water. Excitement and concern tick up through Roy's chest - was the shoe here? If it was, where has it gone?
"Man, you sleep late," someone says quietly, and suddenly a wet shoe comes flying up onto the porch. It lands with a thud, and Roy looks around with breathless anticipation, finally spots Mullet Fingers' wild blond hair peeking up over the edge of the porch railing. He runs over and looks down, beams when Mullet Fingers looks up at him, his finger over his lips.
"I had to rescue the fish around ten o'clock," Mullet Fingers says.
"How long have you been waiting?" Roy asks, gripping the porch railing tight to keep from throwing himself over it to land on him.
"C'mon," Mullet Fingers says, not answering Roy's question. When he begins walking toward the backyard, Roy does throw himself over the railing, and lands heavily behind him. He stumbles forward, and apologizes when he steadies himself on Mullet Fingers' shoulders. He smirks back at Roy as if to tell him it's okay.
They walk down to the beach, Roy biting down on his grin, the whole world gone spectacular around him. Mullet Fingers' presence changes the quality of the sunshine, the color of the ocean, the smell of the air. Roy talks incessantly while they walk, telling him about every stupid thing that happened in school that week, all about Beatrice's soccer anxiety and the math test that he probably failed. Mullet Fingers only smiles slightly, as if Roy is a radio station he's listening to with the volume down low.
When they finally reach the end of the section of beach that is never infested with tourists or moms taking their weekend fitness walks, Mullet Fingers walks down to the water, taking his shirt off as he goes. Roy does the same, flushing all over. The sight of the small of Mullet Fingers' back makes him forget how to walk properly. It's worst when they're lying beside each other on the sand, studying a piece of sea glass or drying off after a swim. Roy always wants to lie not parallel but perpendicular to his friend, to rest his head on that dip at the base of his back and fall asleep listening to him say that he can smell a hurricane on the air.
"Will you do me a favor after this?" Mullet Fingers asks when they're both in the water, Roy floating beside him, his toes scraping at the sand. Mullet Fingers is taller, and he stands steady, as if he's got weights tied to his feet. He grabs Roy's arm to keep him from drifting out to sea when the waves come in hard.
"Yeah," Roy says, trying very hard not to put his arms around Mullet Fingers' shoulders to hold himself above the water that is splashing into his mouth and ears. "Will you do me a favor?" he asks.
"Tell me where you're staying." He doesn't often beg Mullet Fingers for this, feels more comfortable annoying Beatrice. He knows how easily he could lose the magic barefoot boy, and doesn't risk irritating him unless he absolutely must.
"In a safe place." This is the answer he always gives. A motor boat passes far out on the ocean, and Roy waits for the big wave to come in from its wake. When it does, he ducks under it, and swims back toward the surface only to be cracked in the face with another wave. He sputters and coughs sea water, and feels Mullet Fingers' arm slip around his waist.
"You okay?" he asks, his mouth right beside Roy's ear. Roy can only cough, embarrassed. Some sea water went down the wrong pipe. He holds onto Mullet Fingers' arm to brace himself, feels the muscles there tighten in response.
"Let's get out," Mullet Fingers says, dragging Roy through the water toward the shore. Roy nods, still coughing.
"What's this favor you want?" Roy asks when they reach the shore, his voice hoarse. He drops onto his back with his feet still in the last push of the waves, breathes heavy up toward the sky. Mullet Fingers leans over him, his hair dripping onto Roy's face until he has to shut his eyes.
"Don't worry," he says. "It's easy."
They walk toward the shipyard, the hot sun drying their hair as they go. Roy wishes he'd thought to bring a change of shorts, should know by now that any visit with Mullet Fingers usually begins with some aimless swimming. Roy wouldn't be surprised to learn he'd gone swimming twice while he waited for him to wake up. His skin always smells like salt and sun.
Inside the Molly Bell, Mullet Fingers' former temporary home, Roy waits while Mullet changes out of his swimsuit and puts it on the roof of the boat to dry. He walks around the ship with a towel tied around his waist, will be back in the swim shorts in thirty minutes and back in the ocean in an hour. He offers Roy a towel, but Roy shakes his head, glad for the low light inside the ship. If Mullet Fingers knew his secret, he probably wouldn't wear towels in Roy's presence. He's glad that Beatrice hasn't told him, loves her endlessly for that mercy. Mullet Fingers hands Roy a small pair of shiny silver scissors, and Roy frowns.
"What's this?" he asks.
"Will you cut some of this out of my face?" Mullet asks, holding up a strand of his thick blond hair. "I can barely see. I used to let Beatrice cut it, but she's awful, makes me look like an idiot."
"I've never cut anybody's hair," Roy says, distressed at the thought.
"Who cares? It's not hard. C'mon, Cliff, I trust you."
Roy groans at Mullet's nickname for him. Apparently there is a folk singer named Cliff Eberhardt who Mullet's childhood babysitter was very fond of.
"When are you gonna tell me your real name?" Roy asks.
"Never," Mullet says, grinning. He sits down in a rickety chair near the boat's kitchen sink. "Now c'mon. This stuff in my eyes is driving me crazy." He blows at the bangs that cover his forehead, and they flip away comically.
"Okay," Roy says. "Just don't get mad at me if it sucks."
"Just don't make it suck."
Roy sighs, and raises the scissors with a shaking hand. He stands in front of Mullet Fingers and takes a floppy section of his hair in his hand. It's almost crispy toward the bottom, from all the exposure to sun and salt water. At the top it's thick and smooth, and Roy finds the boundary between the two textures, slides the scissors up and snips. He sort of jumps when he does it, and Mullet Fingers laughs.
"You won't be laughing when you see this," Roy says.
"You're doing fine," Mullet Fingers says, as if he can tell. Roy takes a deep breath and cuts another section, then another. He trims the hair over Mullet's ears, and the sections that are beginning to curl at the base of his neck. When he's done he sets the scissors on the counter and shakes the loose pieces of hair out with his fingers. He's almost afraid to look, but when he comes around to the front, he sees that he hasn't done too badly. Mullet looks a bit more dorky than before, but at least he'll be able to see.
"How'd it turn out?" he asks. Roy turns to try and find a mirror, but of course Mullet doesn't keep one on hand.
"Okay," he says. "You've got hair all over your face, though." He brushes pieces of golden hair from Mullet's nose and cheeks, and doesn't really think about what he's doing until Mullet's eyes flutter shut. His skin grows hot under Roy's fingers, and Roy takes his hand away, steps back. Mullet stays seated, and flips his eyes up to Roy's. They're shadowy in the dim light of the old boat.
"Did you get it all?" he asks, and Roy thinks he sounds a little nervous, but he's probably imagining things. He nods, though there is a piece of hair still stuck to Mullet's left cheek, and he wants very badly to reach forward and stroke Mullet's skin as he brushes it away, to see his eyelids flicker like they did just a moment ago. Roy seems, however, to have turned to stone, and he can't pull his hands from where he's stuffed them tight into his back pockets. Mullet Fingers stands and brushes hair from the towel around his waist and his bare shoulders. Roy wishes he would get dressed, feels something starting in his stomach that really should only happen in private.
Mullet runs his fingers through his new short hair, spiking it up awkwardly, and Roy smiles, likes the way he looks without all that shaggy hair covering his face. He looks at Roy as if he's waiting for him to say something, but Roy seems to have lost his voice, too.
"Your lips are really red," Mullet says, and Roy is startled as if he'd been asleep. He reaches up and touches his lips automatically, expecting to feel the redness in them.
"I've gotta go," he hears himself say. Mullet nods and turns from him, rubs the back of his neck.
"Yeah," he says. "Thanks."
Roy gets out of the Molly Bell as fast as he can, the sun outside nearly blinding him. He's so hot he thinks about diving into the ocean on the way back to his house, but it never feels right to be in the ocean without Mullet Fingers beside him. When he gets to the house, his mother calls out to him as he's on his way up to his room, but he can't hear anything properly with his heart drumming and his skin on fire. He mumbles something about not feeling good and shuts his bedroom door behind him.
He actually feels so good that it's sorta terrifying. He goes to his mirror and looks at his face, bleached white by surprise. His lips are red, it's true, he's always hated that, thinks it makes him look girly. He wonders why Mullet Fingers would point it out, why he would even notice, and his eyes well up when he realizes that he just ran away from him, and doesn't know how to find him again.
"Beatrice, please, I'll do anything!"
Roy hasn't seen Mullet Fingers in over two weeks, and he feels like he's slowly bleeding to death. He's hanging on Beatrice's arm as they walk through the halls at school, and she shakes him off, probably afraid they'll be mistaken for a couple and her various prospective boyfriends will give up on her, or try to beat Roy up.
"I can't tell you," she says, again. "I promised!"
"But he's mad at me, and I have to explain," Roy finally admits. Beatrice stops walking, and frowns at him.
"You know?" she says.
"That he's mad at you?"
"He is?" Roy whimpers, guilt slicing him from top to bottom.
"You just said he was!"
"Well - I thought - but I wasn't sure. What did he tell you?" He's hanging on Beatrice again, clawing at her arm like she's his last, fraying lifeline.
"He just said maybe it'd be better if he was by himself for awhile," she says. She walks ahead to the doorway of her Biology class and turns back to give Roy a sympathetic look. "It made me kind of sad. I asked him what was wrong and he wouldn't tell me. I figured it had to be something to do with you."
"Why did it have to be something to do with me?" Roy asks. The warning bell sounds, and students begin rushing into their classrooms. Roy will be late for his World History class, which is all the way on the other side of the building, but he doesn't care.
"Roy, will you grow a brain, please, one of these days?" Beatrice asks with exasperation before ducking into her classroom. Roy won't let her get away that easily, and he follows her in.
"What do you mean?" he asks in a hissed whisper. Beatrice's lab group gives him suspicious looks. He grips her desk as if he'll hold it hostage. Beatrice groans.
"I can't explain now!" she says.
"Beatrice, please." Roy tries to make his face convey the fact that he's been suffering a slow death for the past two weeks. One of the girls in Beatrice's lab group giggles.
"It's just -" Beatrice begins to say. She takes Roy's arm rather more forcefully than necessary, and pulls him over to the wall of the classroom, out of the earshot of the other kids. "It's just that he's risking so much to come into town to see you. And you don't even appreciate it."
"I do!" Roy says. "Beatrice, you know I do!"
"Well, apparently he's gotten the impression that you don't, and that's all I can say."
The final bell rings, and she shoos him out the door. Roy is left standing in the middle of the empty hallway, doors to the classrooms around him slamming shut as teachers arrive. He feels flattened, steamrolled, and his vision tunnels as he walks down the hall. He has no intention of going to class. All he can think about his Beatrice's brother, Mullet Fingers, or whatever he's really called. Roy doesn't need to put a name to him, just wants to see him, even if it's only for a moment. It's his fault that things have gotten messed up, and maybe when they were just beginning to change into something mind-blowing. In the moment, all Roy could think about was how scary it was, but now that the chance has passed, he just wants to go back in time and walk toward him instead of away, take the last piece of hair from his cheek with soft fingers and find out what would have happened next.
After school, he waits for Beatrice to finish practicing drills with the other soccer hopefuls, and jogs to catch up with her group as they prepare to leave. She gives him an exhausted look.
"God," she moans. "You two are really beginning to drive me crazy."
"He's driving you crazy, too?" Roy says. "About - I mean - how?"
"You never stop talking about him, and he refuses to talk about you."
Roy wishes Beatrice would keep her voice down, but he's more interested in finding out where her brother is hiding than maintaining his reputation.
"Just give me a hint," he says. She sighs, and looks back at her friends, who have gathered to whisper, glancing at she and Roy every few seconds.
"Fine," she says, and Roy tries not to show his surprise. He never thought she would crack. "If it'll get me a moment of peace, I'll give you one very vague hint. But you have to promise, if you do figure it out, that you won't pack up your things and move there, okay?"
"You know I won't!"
She gives him a doubtful look, and checks again to make sure her friends won't hear. They're too busy laughing uproariously to hear anything.
"They think we're in love or something," Beatrice says, nodding to her friends.
"So do my parents," Roy says. "Anyway, the hint?"
Beatrice shakes her head slowly.
"This was why I wouldn't tell you who he was when you first came asking," she says. "I could see it on you already."
"Whatever." Roy puts his embarrassment aside for later. "The hint?"
"Man, you've got a one track mind! Okay, here's your stupid hint. Cannonball."
"That's what I said, now scram!"
"Thanks, Beatrice!" Roy says as he backs away, his mind already working over the possibilities. "Thank you so much!"
"Yeah, fine. I just hope both you regrow a personality after you - resolve this."
Roy walks down to the lot that has now become a state-sponsored owl sanctuary, thanks mostly to Mullet Fingers' efforts. He often looks for him here, but hasn't yet found him. Even if they were visiting the site at the same time, Mullet knows how to stay hidden, and Roy doubts he would show himself now. He'll have to ambush him with an apology, though he can't begin to imagine how he'll phrase it. Before he worries about that, he has to figure out Beatrice's hint. He takes one of his school notebooks from his backpack and begins jotting down ideas.
The first place Roy checks out is the local swimming pool, thinking Beatrice was referring to a "cannonball" into the deep end. There are a few mothers hanging around with their young children, and a bored lifeguard slumped in her chair. Roy creeps around the general area, but quickly realizes that it's too densely populated to be a very good hiding place. There are houses on one side, a shopping mall on the other, and the highway is a short walk away. Mullet Fingers would never find this acceptable or safe enough.
He moves on to the old bowling alley near the DMV, but this has the same problem as the pool. There aren't any woods around, and Mullet would never pick such a heavily developed place to hide. Thinking he must have missed something, Roy goes inside and pokes about the building, checking the dark little arcade room and the men's lockers, but nothing is even remotely hopeful. Dejected, he watches a church bowling team's practice for a few minutes before heading back out to search the town.
His last idea is a hotel that is being built between the residential area of the beach and a stretch of preserved land where sea turtles lay their eggs. Roy and Beatrice, with behind the scenes help from Mullet Fingers, have been trying to lobby the local government to force the hotel to cancel their plans for a large tennis court area that will come dangerously close to encroaching on the turtles' egg laying grounds. The turtles don't know which part of the beach is protected, and important nests could be disturbed. So far, they haven't had any luck, and Mullet has been considering his old sabotage tactics. Beatrice and Roy are against it; there's too great a chance that he won't get away with it again this time.
When Roy gets to the building site, the sun is already sinking fast. The reason it came to mind when Beatrice said "cannonball" is pretty vague; there was a wrecking ball here months ago that was used to tear town the remains of a crumbling motel that used to be on the site. He sneaks around the halfway constructed hotel, trying not to step on nails, and peeks about to see if there is anywhere a person could hide. When he finds nothing, even on the surrounding dunes, he collapses into the sand. The humiliating urge to cry inflates inside his chest, but he chews his lip and holds it back.
He heads home after nightfall, knowing that his parents have probably begun to worry. When he gets inside he mumbles an excuse about staying late to study with a friend, and can tell by his parents' tense silence at dinner that they don't believe him. He takes a shower before bed and doesn't attempt any of his homework, knowing he won't be able to concentrate. When his mother knocks softly on his door, he's tempted to tell her to go away, but instead says nothing, just lies on his side in bed. She comes inside and shuts the door behind her.
"Honey?" she says. She sits on the edge of the bed and puts a hand over his knee. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." He can't even begin to imagine how he could explain this to his parents, even if the secrecy of Mullet Fingers' existence wasn't so important. "Just - don't worry about it."
"Roy, of course we're worried. You look so miserable lately - and we haven't seen Beatrice around as much as usual."
"She's trying out for soccer and she's practicing all the time."
"Oh. Is - that what this is about?"
"Sure," Roy mumbles. "I guess."
"Sweetheart," she says, rubbing his back. "High school is hard."
She kisses his ear and leaves him to wallow in his misery. Roy listens to the sounds of she and his father talking in the next room, hopes that she won't send him in to give Roy a talk about the difficulties of having a crush on a girl who doesn't return his feelings. It would hit too close to the truth and be too ridiculous all at once. He's glad when he sees the light dim out in the hallway as their bedside lamps go out.
He shuts his eyes and thinks again of that afternoon when he cut Mullet Fingers' hair, the way it felt between his fingers, the way he'd looked at Roy afterward. He punches his pillow in frustration, will never forgive himself for bolting. Beatrice is right - Mullet risks his freedom every time he visits Roy. Now he thinks that Roy doesn't even care, and he'll never get the chance to convince him otherwise.
Just as he's drifting to sleep, his mind still running over the word "cannonball" and what it could mean, it hits him. He hasn't been literal enough. There is a small island close to the coastal preserve that holds the remains of an old Spanish fort. It's not much of a tourist destination, hard to get to by boat, and is usually deserted. Mullet Fingers pointed it out to Roy once, and he said there was an old cannon lying on the ground, that a family of lizards lives inside it.
Roy shoots up out of bed, wide awake in an instant. His hands shake as he gets dressed, and he pulls open his window as quietly as possible, hoping that his parents are fast asleep by now. As he sneaks outside he wishes he could get some food from the kitchen to bring in case he's right about this and Mullet Fingers is hungry, but he can't risk his parents hearing him snooping around the kitchen. He runs across the backyard and down to the beach, toward the island with the old cannon.
By the time he gets to the spot on the coast that the island is directly across from, he's out of breath and sticky with sweat. He looks around frantically for a row boat and finds nothing. Squinting out at the tiny island, he sees something far in the distance, a little spark of orange light. A campfire. He laughs in relief, has to hold in a celebratory whoop.
Judging that the island isn't as far as he thought it was, he takes off his shoes and socks and throws them in the sand. Without giving himself time to be frightened of the dark ocean, he runs into it, surprised by the cold. Undeterred as the light from the little fire across the channel glows on, he plunges into the water and fights past the choppy waves.
At first, he feels heroic and untouchable, flying through the water at speeds he never thought himself capable of, unperturbed when it gets into his mouth as he gasps for breath. Eventually, he begins to notice that despite getting tired, the island isn't drawing much closer. Not wanting to give in to his growing feeling of dread, he tries to keep himself from turning back to look at the shore, but can't. When he does, a horrified sound escapes him. The shore is much farther than he expected. He turns again to look at the island, and it's so far away, it suddenly seems like another continent.
Telling himself he simply must do this, he swims on, trying not to work harder than he needs to. His heart is hammering like an alarm blaring between his ears, and when he hears something move in the water, maybe fifty feet out, he shouts, panicked. He stays still for a moment, listening to the sound of his rushing breath, then swims on, though his arms and legs are aching, and he's beginning to feel very cold despite the exertion.
He tries not to cry when he realizes that he'll never make it. Instead, he opens his mouth, which is hard to do because his lips are shaking so hard, and attempts to get the word "help" out. His voice is wrecked, and it takes several tries to gather enough air into his lungs to make it audible.
"Help!" he finally manages, the single syllable broken apart. The island is still two hundred feet away, might as well have disappeared. He can't move, and the ocean is beginning to feel treacherous around him, full of invisible threats. "Help!" he calls again, knowing it's too late anyway. His nose is slipping under the water as he uses the last of his nervous energy to try and stay afloat.
Something dark is moving toward him in the water, and from this distance it could be anything. He turns back for shore with a yelp, and expects his fear to give him a second wind, but his limps are trembling and useless, and he's going under. His breathing is frantic, and he sucks in water, chokes on it and can't see anything. Behind him, he hears the dark thing he saw approaching, its fin breaking the water. So panicked he can't even recall how he came to be here, his next swallow of salt water sends him below the surface, struggling for air and flailing uselessly.
The thing that's been stalking him lifts him into its jaws, and at first he's relieved, because he coughs up water and can sort of breathe again. He doesn't fight it, and realizes slowly that he's not being eaten, but pulled roughly into a wooden boat.
"Roy!" At first he thinks he's deliriously said his own name, because this voice is as broken as his still feels. He sputters and grips at the person who is holding him, hopes to God it's Mullet Fingers and tries to smile when he opens his eyes and sees that it is.
"Dammit, I should have brought a blanket," he says, clutching at Roy. "You're shaking - oh man - Roy." He says Roy's name like he's pleading for something, and Roy thinks maybe he's never heard him say it before.
"Sorry," Roy says, holding onto him as best he can with his worn out arms. "I'm sorry, I'm so stupid -"
"Just hold on to me," Mullet says, reaching for an oar. "I have to row, but you'll freeze - how long have been in the water?"
"I-I don't know."
"Just hold on." Mullet Fingers rows like a maniac, throwing water behind them as they move back toward the island. Roy does as he asked, puts his arms around Mullet's waist, his head resting on his back. He shuts his eyes and tries to stop shuddering so hard, but he can't.
When they get to the island, Mullet Fingers helps him out of the boat and across the short beach. Roy thinks of the day Mullet got attacked by a dog at the Pancake House site, and fainted after they tried to patch him up. Roy had been terrified, and he knew he was touching him too much as he helped with a bandage, holding him too tight on the way to the hospital, but he was afraid he wouldn't get the chance again.
Mullet brings Roy to his small camp, where the fire is still glowing dimly. He gives Roy a blanket and hurries to add logs to the fire.
"Take your clothes off and get under that," he says, and then he stumbles off into the darkness.
"Come back," Roy says weakly, but he doesn't. Roy struggles to get his shirt off, then his shorts and boxers, which prove more tricky. He wraps himself in the dusty warmth of the huge blanket, coughs and wishes that Mullet hadn't gone.
He reappears with more firewood and adds it frantically to the pile that is already burning. When Roy stays slumped near his wet clothes, shivering under the blanket, Mullet goes to him and pulls him up with aggravated urgency, yanks him closer to the fire. He goes away again, and returns with a towel that he uses to roughly dry Roy's hair.
"What the hell were you doing?" he asks. Roy has never heard him upset like this, not when a dog tried to chew his arm off, not even when he thought they'd lost the battle to save the owls.
"I f-figured out you were here-"
"You mean Beatrice told you?"
"No - well - yes - but I made her-"
"I knew it. This is just great. Now your parents are going to realize you're missing, they're gonna come here and I'll get caught."
He looks at Roy with such disdain that Roy doesn't even have time to be ashamed of his tears. They slide down his already wet face, and he brings the corners of the blanket up to wipe them away, tries to hide a sob he can't force down.
"I'm sorry," he barely manages to say. "I wanted to see you."
"You're crazy. You could have died!"
"I know. I'm sorry." Roy pulls the blanket over his head and cowers inside it. He never does reckless things like this. He doesn't know what's wrong with him, but thought it might be worth it when he assumed Mullet Fingers felt the same way about him. Now it's clear that he only sees Roy as a burden.
"Don't cry," Mullet says, and Roy wishes he could obey that command. He tries to keep it quiet anyway, holds his hand over his mouth.
"Are you going to be okay?" Mullet asks. Roy hears him move closer, and wishes he could disappear. He'd rather drown than suffer this humiliation and know that he's only brought a very real threat down upon the person he cares about more than anything else in the world.
"Hey," Mullet says, and Roy flinches when he touches his back. Mullet scoffs and walks away. Roy wipes his face, peeks out from under the blanket.
"You can row me home," he says. "Right now. So you won't get caught. My parents won't know I was gone."
"Just take a minute to rest," Mullet says. He's got his back to Roy.
"Thanks for saving me," Roy says. He knows he sounds lame, but he can't think of anything else to say. This is not going the way he thought it would when he ran into the ocean like an idiot.
"Why'd you come here?" Mullet Fingers asks. He looks at Roy's feet, poking out from under the blanket, but won't meet his eyes.
"Why do you think?" Roy hopes he won't make him say it.
"I have no idea."
Roy takes a deep breath, which hurts.
"You didn't come to see me."
Mullet shakes his head. Roy doesn't know what he wants to hear. Certainly not some gushing admission of his true feelings. He seems only annoyed that Roy almost died.
"I missed you," Roy says, his voice creaking as if the words are very heavy. Mullet finally looks at him, his expression soft for just a moment.
"Well," Mullet mumbles. He kicks at some pine straw on the floor of his campground.
"I always do," Roy says, as quiet as the hiss of the fire. Mullet says nothing for a moment. He's got his hands on his hips, eyes on the ground.
"We should get you back," he says. "Before someone notices."
Roy nods, blinks away more tears. What did he expect to happen when he came here? Mullet grinning big, talking about how he'd been waiting for Roy to figure it out, to show up? He's never been that way. He's not like Roy; he doesn't need anything from anyone. Roy stands on his unsteady legs.
"I have some clothes you can wear," Mullet says. He goes into a tent he's set up ten feet from the fire, and emerges with shorts and a t-shirt, a pair of boxers tucked between them. "They're clean," he snaps defensively when Roy eyes them.
"I know," he says. "I'm just so tired."
"You can change in the tent," Mullet says. He pushes the clothes into Roy's hands and walks off as if he doesn't want to be anywhere near the camp while this happens.
Roy crawls into the tent. There is a mattress pad and another blanket inside, a pillow. They smell strongly of Mullet Fingers, and Roy wants to collapse onto them and sleep for weeks, to wake up with Mullet lying warm beside him. He dresses as quickly as he can, which is not very. Mullet's clothes smell even better than his bed, and Roy brings one oversized sleeve up to his face, breathes deep. He looks around the tent, and sees a photograph taped to one of the walls. He leans in close, and can barely make it out in the small light from the fire outside. It's a picture of he and Beatrice. Mullet Fingers took it with Beatrice's camera last summer, under the boardwalk at the beach. She and Roy had brought him a popsicle from a stand up above, and they'd sat in the shadows under the planks for awhile, talking about something, Roy can't remember what. In the picture, Roy's lips are especially red as he leans against Beatrice and grins. He'd had a cherry popsicle just before it was taken.
When he climbs out of the tent, Mullet Fingers is dousing the fire. Roy walks over to stand beside him, but Mullet hardly seems to notice. He's glaring at the smoke billowing up from the ruined fire. Roy wonders how long it took him to build it.
"Sorry," he whispers again. Mullet turns, but will only look at his shoulder.
"Where's the blanket?" he asks. He groans and goes into the tent, retrieves it. Roy stands still while Mullet wraps it again around his shoulders.
"Leave this on," he says, and he walks toward the shore, where the little wooden boat is waiting. Roy follows him, feeling as if he's sleepwalking. He prays to wake up from this nightmare, knows he won't. He's ruined everything. He can only hope that his parents won't realize he's gone, and that no one will see Mullet Fingers bringing him back to shore.
Mullet's rowing is much calmer now, and Roy sits behind him in the boat, thinking sadly of the first day they went out together, when Mullet taught him how to cast a net. He'd had Roy hold it in his mouth at one point; Roy remembers blushing and hoping it would pass as sunburn. He studies the curve of Mullet's back, and his short hair blowing in the breeze off the ocean. He wants so much for Mullet to ask him to hold onto him again.
Roy feels vaguely seasick by the time they reach the shore, but he's pretty sure it has nothing to do with the waves. Mullet drags the boat in and Roy steps out, leaving the blanket behind. Mullet is clearly annoyed by this, though Roy only left it there so he wouldn't be short a blanket. Mullet throws up his hands up as if he can't believe Roy's stupidity. Roy is starting to get mad, and trying very hard not to cry.
"You need to stay warm," Mullet says. He pulls the boat fully onto the shore and gets the blanket, walks toward Roy with it. Roy steps back, his eyes filling up despite his efforts.
"What do you care?" he says, crossing his arms over his chest when the wind blows in cool off the water. Mullet won't take no for an answer. He throws the blanket around Roy and pulls it tight around him, yanking Roy against him in the process. Roy is afraid to move, only stares up at him in the light from the huge moon overhead.
"You could have died," Mullet says through gritted teeth. For a moment Roy thinks he's going to hit him. Instead he lets the tension in his face crumble away, and shakes his head slowly.
"I'm sorry," Roy says, his voice still not fully recovered.
"Roy," Mullet says. He wraps his arms around Roy fully, presses their chests together. Roy can feel his wild heart beating fast. "Quit apologizing, okay?"
Roy nods as Mullet leans in to kiss him very softly on the lips. He shuts his eyes for just a moment, and opens them to see Mullet still lingering close, feels his breath on his mouth. Roy kisses him again, still cautious and just enough to learn the warmth of his lips. He lets his tongue creep out a bit, not really knowing how this works, and Mullet finds it with his, touches just the tip. Roy shudders hard, different now. The cold memory of the ocean is gone, and he's sweating under the blanket, the backs of his knees slippery with it already.
"Roy," Mullet says again, like he's trying to come up with some other, better word for him. Roy lets go of the blanket and wraps himself up in Mullet instead. Mullet rocks him in his arms, sighs with his face pressed against Roy's temple. Roy isn't scared anymore, can't believe he ever was. He ducks his head to kiss Mullet's neck in tiny pecks, then dares to lick him there, where his skin smells so good. Mullet laughs as if he's impressed, squeezes him closer.
"You'd better get home," he says. Roy leans back to look at him.
"One more time," he says. Mullet grins and leans in, but Roy stops him, puts a hand on his chest.
"Wait," he says. "What's your real name?"
Mullet looks as if he doesn't know how to respond to such a question at a time like this, and Roy has no idea where it came from himself.
"Napoleon," he says. Roy blinks in confusion, laughs. He doesn't really mind the lie, doesn't need a word for this boy, never did. He kisses him harder than before, licks through his lips with new purpose, and stands on his tiptoes in dazed joy when Mullet pushes surprised little sounds into his mouth, the hum of them tingling on Roy's lips.
"C'mon," Mullet says when Roy pulls back to breathe. He nods in the direction of Roy's house. Roy knows that they're being reckless, standing here like this, but no one is around.
"You c'mon," he says. "Come stay in my room. Beatrice did, once."
"Beatrice is crazy. Go home, Roy. I'll come see you tomorrow."
"Every day, please," Roy says. "I have to see you every day. I have to do this every day."
"What, this?" Mullet asks with a smirk, and he kisses Roy again, so deeply that Roy starts to stiffen up, and for a moment he's stupidly glad for it, because this feels so good and can only get better. Then reality crashes onto him, and he backs up a little, embarrassed and hoping that Mullet won't look down at his lap.
"Tomorrow," he says. Mullet nods.
"No more swimming in the dark," he says.
"I promise." Roy grins. All of that seems as if it happened years ago already.
"Me too," Mullet says, and he stares at Roy a bit longer before turning toward the boat. Roy watches him climb into it and push into the waves, and he's nearly knocked over by immediate anxiety. Mullet is all alone out there and anything could happen. Roy heads back for his house planning to beg him again tomorrow to stay in his bedroom - the thought of him asleep in the bed beside him is almost too thrilling to comprehend - though he knows it won't work. Mullet Fingers cannot be contained. Roy plans to try anyway, to get his arms around him again and again, until he's rewarded with at least the fleeting sensation of pinning him down.
Roy sneaks back into his room without waking his parents, and he gets into bed wearing Mullet's clothes, the taste of him still on his lips. He laughs into his pillow, unable to believe his luck. He's too wound up to sleep, and doesn't know what to think about first. He almost died, the barefoot boy saved him, and he kissed him, saved his life again. Roy reaches up to touch the tip of his tongue with his fingers, already misses the soft slide of Mullet's against his. He hugs his pillow and rolls onto his side, smiles so hard it hurts.
At some point he does fall asleep, and doesn't wake again until his mother is knocking at his door, telling him he'll be late for school. Roy tries to open his eyes, but they feel swollen and achy. He's shaking again, and barely has the energy to turn over when his mother comes into the room, asking him why he's still in bed. His alarm is blaring on his bedside table. He coughs twice, and his throat is sore, every swallow like a stab.
"Honey!" His mother takes one look at him and ramps into panic mode. She kneels beside his bed and touches his forehead, hums in disapproval. Roy feels horrible, can barely hold his eyes open.
"You've got a fever," his mother says. "Oh, Roy, look at you! When did you start feeling sick?"
"I don't know," he croaks out, wincing. "Mom, my throat."
"Alright. You're staying home from school today, clearly. I'll call in to work and let them know I'm not coming. Just hang tight, baby. I'll get you some orange juice and something for your throat."
Roy mumbles in gratitude and rolls onto his side again, shuts his eyes. He's immediately asleep, so exhausted he can hardly remember his own name. He thinks of Mullet Fingers, and has troubled dreams of leaving him waiting all day and never seeing him again. His mother returns and makes him swallow some nasty cherry-flavored medicine, and then orange juice. She leaves again to make him some toast, and Roy wishes he had the energy to stay awake. He needs to figure out what he's going to do about Mullet Fingers; he has to meet with him today. If he doesn't respond to his shoe signal left on the porch, everything that happened last night will be spoiled. He knows he won't get another chance to explain.
He's a zombie for most of the afternoon, awake only long enough to painfully slurp down some soup. He tries to go downstairs and check the front porch around three o'clock, when school lets out and when Mullet normally shows up on weekdays, but his mother won't allow it, and he almost collapses on the way there.
"Roy!" she scolds as she helps him back up to his bedroom. "What do you want to go downstairs for, anyway? And where did you get these clothes?"
Roy uses being sick as an excuse not to answer. He falls back into bed, and when his mother leaves to go to the drugstore and restock their supply of medicine, he tries to call Beatrice and ask her to explain to Mullet why he's not around today, but she doesn't answer, is probably at soccer practice. Roy moans in annoyance and tries to get out of bed again, his arms shaking with the effort. Puffy-eyed, he travels downstairs slowly, and checks the porch. There is no shoe, and he punches the door frame, afraid he's missed his chance. He begins to make his way back toward the stairs, afraid he'll pass out in the foyer.
Roy whirls around when he hears Mullet's voice, and the force of the movement makes him lose his balance. He falls gracelessly onto his ass, and Mullet stifles a laugh, puts on a sympathetic look instead. He's standing on the porch, looking in through the screen door.
"Beatrice said you weren't in school today."
"I wasn't," Roy says stupidly, afraid he's hallucinating. "You can come in. My mom's not home."
"I know, I saw her leave. Will she be back soon?"
"I doubt it," Roy says, hating the scratched-up sound of his voice. "She went to the pharmacy, and the one she likes is all the way on the other side of the bridge. It's rush hour, so the traffic will be bad."
Mullet looks behind him nervously before opening the door. He walks to Roy and helps him up, then prompts him to climb onto his back. Roy is embarrassed by the gesture, but it feels good to wrap his legs and arms around Mullet, like strong medicine.
"Can you even make it?" Roy asks when Mullet faces the stairs that lead up to Roy's bedroom. Mullet scoffs.
"What do you take me for?"
He walks up the stairs with Roy on his back, stopping only once to lean on the railing. When they get to Roy's bedroom he dumps him into bed, then shuts the door before coming to sit beside him. He puts a hand on Roy's damp forehead.
"You're really hot," he says. Roy smirks, and Mullet rolls his eyes.
"You know what I mean."
"So you're sick, huh?"
"It's not contagious."
Mullet shrugs. "I never get sick anyway."
Roy folds his hands over his chest. After what happened last night, he didn't expect to still feel nervous around Mullet, but even through his delirium, he worries about not knowing where to go from here. Mullet seems uncharacteristically anxious himself, glancing around Roy's room like he's checking for spies.
"I'm pissed off," Roy says. "I wanted to hang out with you after school."
"Yeah." Mullet puts his hand over Roy's, and Roy grins. He reaches up, blaming his illness for making his hand tremble, and touches the place on Mullet's cheek where the stray hair he left behind once rested. Mullet shuts his eyes, smiles.
"I knew you liked me," he says. He takes Roy's hand and kisses his thumb, then his knuckles.
"Then how come you were such a jerk last night?" Roy regrets this as soon as he's said it, but he has been wondering why Mullet was so cold to him when they were on the island. Mullet kisses Roy's palm, then licks it, and Roy shivers. He's forgotten the ache in his throat and the soreness of his limbs, feels wonderful now.
"Maybe I didn't really know," Mullet admits. "I wasn't sure. And then I touched your back, and - you seemed like you didn't want me to."
"I did," Roy says, and Mullet laughs.
"Yeah," he says. "I've figured that out, now."
Roy pulls him down into the bed with him, rolls them both onto their sides and holds onto him from behind. He's so warm, smells so nice, and Roy feels cured, despite the fact that he's so tired he couldn't lift his head if he tried.
"I can't stay," Mullet says, shattering Roy's contentment. It's something they can never forget, the fact that Mullet is always in danger of being found out, sent away. Roy squeezes him, as if he can hide him in his arms if he gets him close enough.
"Just a minute longer," Roy says. He licks the back of Mullet's neck, just beneath the soft curl of his hair, and Mullet sighs, reaches around to hold onto Roy's leg.
"You're the best person I've ever met," he says, and Roy has to stop himself from laughing, because Mullet seems to be serious.
"Better than Beatrice?" he asks doubtfully. He's often been jealous of Beatrice and Mullet's relationship, that untouchable trust.
"I don't want to kiss Beatrice, so, yeah."
Roy pulls on his shoulder until he rolls over to face him. He scoots forward and licks Mullet's lips, shuts his eyes when Mullet pushes through his with his tongue. Roy holds him tight around the waist, wishes he could do this forever. The late afternoon light through his bedroom is warm and yellow-orange, and the day is so quiet and cozy. Mullet slings a leg over Roy's, as if he's the one who needs to be kept in place.
"If you ever run away," Roy says, short of breath while Mullet's hand creeps under his shirt and slides across his chest, making him jitter happily and worry again about the state of his lap. "Take me with you."
He looks at Mullet to make sure he's understood that he's serious about this, and Mullet stares back at him sadly. Roy knows he won't make this promise, because it's not one he'll be able to keep. If he ever has to run, he won't have time to collect Roy, and anyway, Roy isn't as strong as he is. He would miss his parents. He would regret not finishing school. Mullet knows all of this, and he strokes Roy's face, tells him so without speaking.
"You're so good," Mullet whispers. "I'm worried - last night - I'm going to get you in trouble."
"No," Roy says. "That was my fault."
Mullet shakes his head, and puts his hand under Roy's shirt again. He runs his short fingernails over Roy's back, and Roy is afraid he'll fall asleep if he keeps it up, but doesn't want him to stop.
"I wish you could just stay here," Roy says. He pushes his face against Mullet's neck, listens to his pulse pumping under his skin. Mullet's fingers slip down to the small of Roy's back, setting off goosebumps.
Roy thinks he hears Mullet say this, but he's drifted to sleep, and might have only dreamt it. When he opens his eyes, he sees his mother shutting his bedroom window, and jumps awake, afraid that she'll discover Mullet, but when he looks around the room, he sees no sign of him.
"Roy, quit opening this window," his mother scolds. "I know it's warm outside, but the draft still isn't good for you when you're sick." She steps back and looks at him for a moment. "Actually, you look like you've improved a little. How do you feel?"
Roy's mouth hangs open. He can't begin to know how to answer that question. For a moment he's afraid that Mullet's entire visit was only a dream, but he can taste honey on his tongue, the cheap kind that Mullet eats with Ritz crackers when he can't afford a real meal. He looks around again, hoping to spot him hiding behind the door or peeking out of the closet, but he's long gone.
"Roy?" his mother says. "How do you feel?"
"Fine," he says. He can't tell her the truth, that he feels like half a person, that from now on, part of him will always be missing.